Thursday, June 3, 2010

REVIEW: The Addams Family

Review of the May 29 evening performance. At the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway, New York City. 2 hours, 35 minutes, including one intermission. Starring Nathan Lane, Bebe Neuwirth, Terrence Mann, Carolee Carmello, Kevin Chamberlin, Jackie Hoffman, Zachary James, Adam Riegler, Wesley Taylor and Krysta Rodriguez. Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa. Creative Consultant: Jerry Zaks, Choreographer: Sergio Trujillo, Directed and Designed by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch.

Like Legally Blonde and Mamma Mia! before it, The Addams Family seems destined to be one of those shows that everyone can feel safe publicly trashing, but secretly sees half a dozen times.  The critics, in their scathing best, have granted bloggers and chat room chatters the world over carte blanche to rip apart anything and anyone that has to do with the show.  I will admit, I was certainly prepared for the worst - a boring, one joke show that would leave me flat and despairing for a stellar cast. I can admit with equal honesty that I did not go into the theatre hoping for a train wreck so that I could leave with a valuable and collectible Playbill.  I never do.  Every new show is an adventure to me, and considering the non-stop bad press this show gets, it was shaping up to be one hell of an adventure.

Is the show as bad as everyone says it is?  No.  Not even close.  I'm going out on a limb here, and it may destroy any credibility I may have in this little piece of the blogosphere, but I am being 100% truthful when I say that by far (and I mean FAR) The Addams Family is the funniest new musical, not only of this season but the one before it, too.  And it isn't that snarky, in-joke, self-aware kind of funny that wears thin, either.  It is genuinely hilarious, expertly packaged and delivered by perhaps the most completely talented cast assembled in years. 

The principal cast of The Addams Family

I guess, though, to fully appreciate it, one must not only know, but understand what the creators mean when they say that the show is based primarily on the comics drawn and written by Charles Addams for The New Yorker.  That means giving up certain things that we take for granted Addams-wise.  Morticia does not constantly speak French to get Gomez horny (though it does happen once in the show).  The brother and sister don't hate each other at all, they show their love by torturing and attempting murder on each other - they are affectionate, not rivals, like in the films.  Grandma and Lurch have personalities as broad as the rest of the family.  And most importantly, they all see the world with a skewed, almost completely opposite way from the rest of us, there is always a germ of truth in what they observe and the code by which they live.  In short, they are funny and fun, but not a running gag or long-winded joke.

And so, keeping that in mind, the writers (book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa) have done, I think, a fantastic job of reining it all in, while still giving the audience little bits of the TV show (Fester lights bulb with his mouth, Grandma is part stoner, part potion maker, Cousin Itt and Thing make cameos) and the film (both Lane and Neuwirth pay subtle homage to both Raul Julia/John Astin and Anjelica Houston/Carolyn Jones).  But mostly, they stick to the comics while creating a new story for the family to get through.  How do they do this?  Well, much of the script is in short bursts - there are several "scene change bits".  For example, in recreating the feel of a one panel cartoon, Morticia is putting Pugsley to bed; he can't sleep as he worries that monster under the bed won't be there any more; she soothes him with a game of "this little piggy" - he has six little piggies - and as he drifts off, Morticia reaches down and pets the monster under the bed, offering him a mouse for a bedtime snack.  In about ten lines and 45 seconds, the writers have created two or three of those famous one panel cartoons.  This occurs throughout, often to bide time while the extensive set is put into place. 

"When You're an Addams"

Sounds old school, right?  Well, The Addams Family (any version) is old school - squeaky clean with a macabre twist, and the creative team has done the one thing that I feel is crucial to any stage adaptation of a famous book, film or comic:  it uses the elements of the original to their utmost, while creating a piece that thrives because it does things that can only be done on a stage, not in the original's prior format.  In this case, the team has created scenes that very much parallel the visual + one-liner style of the comics, pays tribute to the more familiar films and TV series, and then brings it to the stage by using theatrical conventions that would never translate to film.  You know this will be theatre the minute you look at the stage, bathed in huge red stage curtains, draped just so, with large gold tassels and footlights at the edge of the stage.  You know this will be theatre because the fourth wall is broken throughout, with direct address to the audience, and mostly you know this is theatre, not film or television, because everything about it is old-fashioned Broadway in the very best sense of the phrase.

The Addams Family Company

The production is lavish - and designers Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch were truly robbed of a well-deserved Tony nomination.  The sets are huge, creepy, colorful and plentiful, with just enough stage trickery (special effects by Gregory Meeh and puppetry by Basil Twist) to make it feel modern.  Their costumes are equally impressive - you get everything you'd expect from the Addams family themselves, plus a bevy of their ancestors, who function as Greek chorus and old-time scenery movers, in period (EVERY period) costumes done entirely in ghostly white.  Natasha Katz, lighting designer, has also brought her A game, with lighting that must be creepy, kooky, ooky, night time, day time and out of time.  One of the very best moments in the show that exemplifies everything I'm trying to say about it being theatrical, old school and still modern is when Uncle Fester confesses his love for the moon to a group of bathing beauty ghosts and us, his enraptured audience.  The lighting is moonlight bright, and yet black enough to completely hide puppeteers who manipulate several things on stage to hilarious effect (I won't give away any more).

Nathan "Gomez" Lane and
Bebe "Morticia" Neuwirth

Many have derided Andrew Lippa's score, to which I say, cut the guy a break.  He is working under a pretty strict set of parameters.  Like the script, his lyrics must contain rapid fire punchlines and turns of phrase that are black comedy and macabre in tone, all while trying to reveal something new about characters we already think we know, as well as advance the plot.  That he does so with one hummable, toe-tapping number after the other is no small achievement.  That he reveals character with song types here is a great way to expand our knowledge, where under lesser capable hands, it could have sounded like a bunch of disparate songs in pastiche (Starlight Express,anyone?).  Lippa gives Gomes a tango edge to his numbers, Morticia gets old fashioned song and dance numbers, Fester has a couple of vaudeville turns, while Pugsley and Wednesday get more contemporary sounding numbers - she gets the RENT meets Spring Awakening without letting go completely of Annie number "Pulled in a New Direction" while torturing him on the rack (much to his pleasure), and he gets the act two revelation number reminiscent of such numbers in In the Heights and next to normal, all while sounding like the little kid he is.  Can you imagine a more delicious way to musical theatre-ize teen angst than by sending up the shows that celebrate it? 

And is it any small irony that the Beineke family - uptight suburbanites played by Terrance Mann and Carolee Carmello - sing songs that have that emotions on your sleeve, 80's/90's pop opera/musical bombast?  I mean, he starred in three such shows - Les Miz, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Cats, while she has made a living belting out ABBA over at Mamma Mia for years, while taking a break to star in Lestat (and she also did a stint in Pimpernel).  Lippa knows what he is doing here.  These are not throw away songs; each has a purpose and each has, apparently, been carefully written.  Just because it is also funny, easy on the ears and maddeningly hummable doesn't make it bad.

Kevin Chamberlin, Terrence Mann and Nathan Lane

Having said all of that, the book, music and lyrics do suffer a bit from being a smidgen aggressive, which in turn, can wear thin over the course of an evening.  They are best when more subtle, funny when they are obvious in that "groan, but laugh anyway" way.  But they also never feel completely at ease.  The same can be said for the amazing and entirely perfectly cast cast.  Instead of laughing themselves at the requisite bad puns, obvious one liners and silly double entendres, the cast as a whole seems to push occasionally too hard for laughs that would likely come anyway.  NOTE TO NAYSAYERS: Be careful what you wish for, folks, when you want more of the movies and TV series.  They are full of such groan inducing lines and situations.  But also, don't bitch about it when they give you what you want, either!

No one can deliver a punch line and seem like he means it better than Nathan Lane, whose Gomez is a mess of emotions, Latin flair, and family pride; and no one on the Broadway stage can downplay glibbery better than the ice cold Bebe Neuwirth as the cold as a corpse Morticia.  (Her kick line number and tango solo are character-driven and exciting, even as she maintains the frozen veneer, too!) I found both of them to be the most interesting, though, when their scenes call for them to be in confused turmoil.  They are asked by Wednesday to be "normal" for just one night, and they are at first a sea at even trying to grasp what the request means, but then it is both sublimely funny and surprisingly touching when they realize that maybe they are a little bit "normal" in spite of themselves, anyway.  I suppose it makes sense then that the Beinekes are equally "into" their uptight, self-righteous mid-westernly ways as the Addams are in their angst and sadness, and both Carmello and Mann play that to the hilt.  But when circumstances occur that make them a little more "Addams" it is just as shocking for them to find out that they have been under it all, too.  (Complainers that this is a La Cage re-do have not thought out that the script carries the tranformation to full completion for BOTH families, not just the odd balls.)

Adam Riegler, Krysta Rodriguez and Wesley Taylor

Like in most families, the parents in this show are the glue that holds everything together, but it is the rest of the family that makes it interesting.  Wesley Taylor, Broadway's current "it" boy, makes the most of his second banana role, and really gets across the bravado of a young adult know it all, who poo-poos his parents' ways, but unwittingly emulates them.  He has no fun character or cool costume to work with, but he is still interesting to watch.  Adam Riegler is one of the best child actors to come along in some time.  Never once does he over do the "cute" and he never mugs to the audience.  Rather, he plays a kid like a real kid, and plays the visual gags completely straight, an approach that elicits huge reactions.  Zachary James - as the towering, walking dead Lurch - is literally a scream.  It is hard to imagine anyone else getting as much out of walking slow and wailing out gutteral sounds.

Jackie Hoffman and Adam Riegler

Tony nominee Kevin Chamberlin, ever the consummate professional plays Fester to the hilt, bringing him to the edge of the overkill canyon, but artfully drawing him back just before he gets to be too much.  His moon number is a highlight of the second act, and every time he takes the stage, it is a just a bit brighter because he is there.  Broadway's quintessential dirty old lady, Jackie Hoffman, is literally and figuratively the dirty old lady here.  As Grandma, she gets to dispense aged wisdom, a potion or two, and some really funny zingers that should blister anyone within a ten mile radius.  As always, her delivery is impeccable, she gets a huge hand every time she says anything, and she is a delight throughout.  It is a shame that she makes it all seem so easy and effortless.  She deserves recognition for her vast array of skills.

Finally, Krysta Rodriguez as Wednesday, about whom the plot revolves, pretty much has the show at her mercy.  And we are all the better for it; this girl can handle her own show!  What a voice - her belt is crystal clear, and her range impressive.  And that she can make the notoriously glum, non-emotional Wednesday emotional and believably so is no small fete.  I am already looking forward to her next show, just to see what else she can do.

Nathan Lane and Krysta Rodriguez

The weakness of The Addams Family may ultimately be its biggest strength - its cast.  Not everyone can spin gold out of cotton candy fluff like Lane, Neuwirth, Rodriguez and company.  Without them, and their way with the material, its warts will likely show more.  But even still, it is not the loser the community has banded together to hate.  It is a funny, warm, old-fashioned Broadway show, where everything is larger than life and full of razzle-dazzle.  It may not have the indestructibility of an ABBA score, but like that show, The Addams Family is a comfortable, friendly old friend that guarantees a good time to anyone who wants one.  My suggestion to you us this: leave your torches and ramrods at home.  Go to the Lunt-Fontanne and try embracing this monster before dragging it to an undeserved death.

Grade: A-

(Photos by Joan Marcus)

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